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Some Thoughts on the Film Trumbo

Walter Moss: We should be careful about being too sure we are noble and others ignoble, about whipping out judgments on those who act less heroically.

Having just viewed the film Trumbo, I had the usual reaction that most of us progressives would have: three cheers for the good guy (Trumbo) who stood up for his principles and was even willing to go to jail for them. And shame, shame, shame on the bad folks like Hedda Hopper (rendered so skillfully by Helen Mirren) for being so obsessed with perceived communist threats that, like the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and others, she behaved indecently towards Trumbo and others suspected of communist sympathies.

Trumbo

Along with this expected reaction, however, I had another. It was produced primarily by the films ending when Trumbo speaks at a ceremony where he receives an award for advancing the “literature of motion pictures.” This other reaction that the speech produced in me was “good for Trumbo for exemplifying humility and tolerance.”

Here is what he said (taken from the film script):

The blacklist was a time of evil.
And no one who survived it
came through untouched by evil.
Caught in a situation that had passed
beyond the control of mere individuals.
Each person reacted as his nature,
his needs, his convictions,
and his particular circumstances
compelled him to.
It was a time of fear.
And no one was exempt. . . .

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But when you look back
upon that dark time,
as I think you should every now and then,
it will do you no good
to search for heroes or villains.
There weren't any.
There were only victims.
Victims, because each of us
felt compelled to say or do things
that we otherwise would not.
To deliver or receive wounds
which we truly did not wish to exchange.
I look out to my family sitting there,
and I realize what I've put them through.
And it's unfair. . . .

And so what I say here tonight
is not intended
to be hurtful to anyone.
It is intended to heal the hurt.
To repair the wounds which,
for years,
have been inflicted upon each other.
And most egregiously, upon ourselves.

The speech reveals Trumbo’s

  • Own doubts and uncertainties—“I realize what I've put them (his family) through. And it's unfair.”
  • His realization that “each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions,
    and his particular circumstances compelled him to.” We should be careful about labeling whole groups “good” or “bad.” As Pope Francis said on one occasion, “Who am I to judge.”
  • Desire to “heal the hurt” and avoid judging people as “heroes or villains.”

These reflections are not to deny that some people act more heroically than others in particular circumstances—as Trumbo did under threats and pressure. Nor should we fail to make ethical judgments about how best to act or to do so with passion and courage. But we should be careful about being too sure we are noble and others ignoble, about whipping out judgments on those who act less heroically. Individual circumstances often cause different responses, and we should be more empathetic than judgmental about the behavior of others in complex situations. Which of us can be sure that under pressing circumstances, we would always act heroically?

walter moss

Walter G. Moss